September 14, 2008

Building a national identity through cultural property

Posted at 4:40 pm in Similar cases

Many aspects of African culture have died out or been forgotten, but this could be in part due to removal of many of their most important artefacts to fill the museums of the west rather than to hod significance to their own people. This is far from the only problem in re-discovering a country’s culture, but it is a starting point & one that is resolved relatively easily if there is the will for both sides to negotiate.


Kenya: Fostering Nationhood
The East African (Nairobi)
OPINION – 14 September 2008
Posted to the web 15 September 2008
Betty Caplan

Two important cultural institutions — the National Museum and the RaMoMa Gallery — have reopened in the past few months with little pomp, circumstance or media attention.

But it seems that serious discussion on the arts has been overtaken by politics to such an extent that only John Kariuki in this paper took the trouble to point out that no provision for it had been made in the last budget — a short-sighted calculation since, if wisely handled, the arts can make big money.

Nor do arts and culture feature large in Vision 2030. Don’t forget that they are also valuable tools in the promotion of tourism.

Yet contemporary art in Kenya has been flourishing in the past few years in spite of government indifference, which does not mean the lack of budgetary allocation.

Hands up those MPs who have bought a single work of Kenyan art? How many rich businessmen would even contemplate such a thing?

Some are beginning to catch on — the new Safaricom House is filled with commissioned paintings by Kenyans and the Java House Coffee Shops have made a practice of promoting the hugely talented Jimnah Kimani, making them even more inviting.

Does President Mwai Kibaki have fine sculptures by Elkana Ngesa or Irene Wanjiru at State House?

Not when I’ve had a glimpse of it via my TV screen. How many artists has the Kenyatta family supported? What do you put it down to — lack of education? Some members of our elite have been to the best universities in the world but their education appears to be limited in certain areas.

To return to my original subject: the museum has re-opened at a time of great turmoil in this country — there is heated discussion everywhere about the meaning of heritage, tribe, history, ethnicity.

Problems surrounding the totally foreign idea of a museum are explored at great length and depth by Prof Ali Mazrui in Kenya Past and Present, Issue No 35 2005, a scholarly publication of the Kenya Museum Society.

Here is the crux: “Because of the oral tradition, African history is particularly prone to the forces of myth-making and legend-building.

Tribal founders like Kintu of the Baganda or Mumbi of the Kikuyu are often elevated to the status of historical figures. Museums often have to preserve the physical documentation of cultural beliefs — without taking sides between mythology and history.”

Mazrui goes on to point out “the comparative weakness of the archival tradition in Africa and its devastating consequences for the history of our people.”

One might also add the fact that Africans were largely the subjects of conquering nations like the British, the French and the Portuguese who looted the finest works of art freely and whose own museums would now be empty without such treasures as the Benin Bronzes or the much fought-over Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon in Athens, kindly held in trust for the Greek people indefinitely despite their regular protests.

Take these away from the British Museum and all you have left of local origin are some exquisite ivory carvings of chess figures (and where did the ivory come from, pray?) or the Sutton Hoo collection of Anglo-Saxon objects found in the shipwreck of the above vessel. Not enough to draw crowds from near and far, you’ll agree.

Mazrui bemoans the lack of an archival tradition which he defines as “a cultural preoccupation with keeping records and preserving monuments, a tradition of capturing the past through preserved documentation… Because the archival tradition is weak in Africa, the scientific tradition became weak, our languages atrophied and so did any philosophical tradition — with ghastly consequences for our peoples across the centuries.”

This deficit has led people to assume that Africa was a continent without history.

Mazrui even intimates that slavery and colonialism were closely linked to this perceived lack of culture and recorded memory. But then Bible-wielding colonialists of every hue have arrogantly taken it upon themselves to “educate the heathen” and to bring them up to their own standards, never questioning the moral or ethical implications of their actions. Civilisations that valued concrete remains or written records did not appreciate Africa.

Mazrui speaks about the false memory that Africa was one before colonisation, but he reminds us that it need not be a false hope.

“Museums all over Africa are likely to be called upon to reinforce Africa’s false memory that it was once united before European colonisation.”

We need to keep this in mind when we contemplate the new museum, funded largely by an EU grant. Not all the galleries have opened yet, but there is enough to be getting on with, what with several fascinating temporary exhibitions — Rock Art, pictures by various photographers, and in the Creativity Gallery, contemporary art by lesser-known artists.

Once the museum is complete, a booklet at the very least describing the objects, the aims and the concept of the museum will be necessary — something currently missing from the superb Murumbi Collection at the Kenya National Archives, which is another lost opportunity.

How many visitors to Nairobi or Nairobians themselves for that matter even know about it? Guests might even be persuaded to spend a few days in the capital rather than rushing straight off to the Mara or the Coast.

When it comes to the new RaMoMa Gallery, Nairobians can be proud to show off a facility that is world class in every respect.

Formerly housed in the Rahimtullah Towers in Upper Hill, it re-opened in April in a converted series of buildings on Second Avenue Parklands, seemingly difficult to get to until you remember that it is just around the corner from the Aga Khan Hospital — within walking distance for those who are car-free.

It opened in March with a dedicated space for RaMoMa’s permanent collection (the ValDor Gallery, a revolving exhibition space (the Dodhia Gallery) a children’s wing where art will be created and displayed, currently subsidised by Safaricom, a sculpture garden, a photography gallery, a resource centre sponsored by Hillcrest School, an open access print studio, a performance centre and artists’ meeting area, a superb shop and offices for the Pamoja Dance Group.

The downstairs gallery has provided an excellent backdrop for performances by the group and by several theatre companies.

The story of the move is fascinating in itself: Abraham Block ( he of the famous Block Hotels group) came to Nairobi in 1903 from Lithuania and with hard work and dedication managed to build up a huge empire of hotels, including the Norfolk.

Two of the Block brothers married two sisters — Valerie and Doria Browse — and it is their descendants who have decided to give something substantial back to the country that gave them so much.

Two of Block’s grandchildren, Jeremy and Lyn, together with their spouses — Caroline Fox Block and Albert Fuss set up the Valdor Trust, which purchased the property.

It isn’t pure happenstance: Doria was an art lover and Valerie an artist. The Valdor Trustees are giving the building in trust to what founder member and artist Mary Collis calls “a peppercorn rent” and the restaurant, which is due to open soon will help towards operating expenses.

Caroline is on the RaMoMa board, and her sister-in-law Lyn is a serious art collector. Both have been instrumental in offering their expertise in what Mary calls a “very hands-on way.”

Money from corporate use of the multi-purpose buildings plus some remaining core funding from the Ford Foundation should keep the wolf from the door, but the RaMoMa will need substantial funds if it is to continue to thrive since the whole project will be far more expensive to maintain.

The Dodhia house has a story too. Originally designed in the early 1970s by Jim Archer as a steel and glass minimalist structure to house the private collection of Vrajlal Dodhia, it has now been turned into a supremely suitable space for contemporary art, but with the unique features of the original building preserved, like the carved wooden Gujerati doors.

The whole thing makes for a delightful experience, with the funky pink and orange pillars that cover the down pipes (not in the original plan of the Triad Architects) and the Japanese style garden providing an appealing entrance to a house of treasures.

In keeping with the minimalist style, the rooms are light and spacious with details like the trimming around the wooden floor blocks making a break in what might otherwise become monotonous.

Harrison Mburu, one of the Jua Kali artists who has a studio there, has produced ingenious waste-metal animals to fill the spaces between the wrought iron winding staircase — a unique and utterly surprising feature that will delight young and old.

As in the previous gallery, young people will be encouraged to come and take part, and some of the best-known artists will give their time to working with the underprivileged, who do not even have art on their timetables.

Many of Kenya’s famous painters and sculptors are represented there — Joseph Bertiers Lady in Red, Patrick Mugabe, Justus Kyalo, Irene Wanjiru, Morris Foit and Peter Elungat — to name but a few.

When I last visited, the temporary gallery held an exquisite exhibition of paintings by veteran artist Ancent Soi.

Previously, the controversial Kenya Burning exhibition was borrowed from the GoDown Arts Centre to give it a wider airing.

How often do Kenyan events get a mention in the foreign press? In May, the Economist produced a piece called “Can Art Make Politicians Try Harder?” reviewing the exhibition, including interviews with curators Judy Ogana and Joy Mboya, and describing the images on show as “harrowing.”

It ends with a reminder of the total lack of interest in art and culture by our elite: “But not one Kenyan politician has visited the show. This has prompted calls by Kenyan artists for the images to be displayed in parliament, even, say the feistiest, in the members’ dining room.”

No doubt our philistine leaders read the prestigious magazine — perhaps they might even be prompted to take its advice.

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